Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Pretty Petiole

I viewed this colorful insect with a wary eye since red and black tend to be warning signs in nature. Turns out that Common Thread-waisted Wasps (Ammophila procera) are relatively harmless as the adults mainly feed on nectar. Vocab word of the day: petiole is the narrow waist in between the abdomen and thorax.

Unlike the male, the female has an ovipositor, which is used for egg-laying (and stinging, when necessary). She does all her parenting upfront: paralyzing a caterpillar, dragging it into a sandy burrow, inserting a single egg, and sealing the burrow, before flying away.

When the larva hatches, it consumes the (immobile but still alive) caterpillar from the inside out. Makes me glad I’m not a caterpillar!

Black Beauty

This carpenter bee’s large size caught my attention as she* whizzed by my head on the way to a flower. If I was an entomologist, I would be able to tell you which of the two species of Xylocopa (that reside in Florida) it was, but it’s a bit tricky to discern the difference.

One would have to determine the distance between the eyes, the number of antenna segments, types of submarginal cells in wings, and abdomen and thorax color and pubescence. Fascinating details, I’m sure but I was too enthralled with her colorful, diaphanous wings and the way they resembled a stained glass window. Just stunning!

*I am fairly certain this was a female since the males tend to sport a bit of yellow on their thorax.

Bottoms Up!

Though the brunt of the storm was 300 miles away, Hurricane Laura churned up the water along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Scattered along my beach are brown clumps mixed with shells. Though they look like rocks, the brown lumps are actually soft and squishy tunicates.

Affectionately called Sea Squirts, tunicates are colonial bottom dwellers that attach to hard surfaces (including abandoned shells). The wave action also tossed up a bunch of sea urchins (and by now you should know how I feel about them).

We’ve received a sneak peek at life from the benthic level of the sublittoral zone. Since they were deposited above the normal high tideline we will get to enjoy the delightful aroma as they decay in the sand.

Tip-tail

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)

Spotted Sandpiper, Fort DeSoto Park, Mullet Key, Florida August 2020

I spent time with this Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) yesterday afternoon. It kept a wary eye on me as it forged along the shoreline for insects and small crustaceans. Contrary to the name, the juvenile of the species lacks spots and instead has brownish breasts with a plain, white belly.

The Ancient Greek basis for the binomial is very descriptive; aktites = coast-dweller, macula = spot. Though, in my opinion, the key identifying feature is the bird’s constant body-bobbing, whether walking or standing still. This behavior led to the appropriate moniker, tip-tail.

Coin Vine

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While technically considered a shrub, Coin Vine (Dalbergia ecastaphyllum), earned its common moniker from the shape of its flat, round seed pods and its long, lanky branches that help it climb nearby trees. The pods I found today were fresh and green but I hear they dry to a coppery brown, which would certainly be reminiscent of a penny.

Native to Florida, the plant provides a crucial service along the coast by helping to stabilize the shoreline. The early indigenous peoples of the area utilized the bark and leaves of the plant to stun fish, leading to its other common name, Fish Poison Vine.

Long Beak Problems

I spent a decent part of a morning watching this American White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) preen. While the feathers from the neck down looked well-cared for, the ones above appeared a little disheveled. Clearly, there are a few disadvantages to having such an extended mandible!

I read a study from Florida that determined an adult ibis spends well over half the day roosting during nesting season. The birds occupied a good portion of that time with their personal hygiene.

I was surprised to learn that, though they nest in large colonies, they do not practice allopreening (except during courtship). I had presumed they would help each other reach their inaccessible areas but apparently, they just go around half-bathed.

 

Doodlebug Compound

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Antlion Pits, Little Manatee River State Park, Florida July 2020

Antlion larvae prefer to excavate their inverted cone traps in soft sand under trees where ants and other insects might traipse. This must’ve been an ideal spot, I’ve not seen this density in one location before – it was a plethora of pits!

There are over 2,000 species of antlions found mainly in warm regions around the world. They are classified in the family Myrmeleontidae which stems from two Greek words; ant (myrmex) and lion (leon). As for the common name, Doodlebug, that derived from the strange designs they create in the sand while searching for the perfect pit spot.

Depending on resources (or lack thereof) antlions can remain in the larval stage for up to three years. After pupating, they emerge as delicate, flying objects that resemble lacewings. They also undergo a lifestyle change, many of them subsisting on nectar and pollen for their brief adulthood (roughly a month).

There were antlions in the Sonoran Desert where I grew up and I spent many a summer day tickling the side of a trap with a blade of grass, trying to coax one into grabbing hold so that I could pull it out of the sand and examine it. I don’t find them visually appealing but I do admire their hunting prowess. As you can see in the video below, they have some mad skills!

Bittersweet Solace

This showy bush caught my eye a couple months back but the photos ended up buried in my archive until recently. As the shape of the leaves, flowers, and fruit all suggest, Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is in the same family as the tomato.

Native to Europe and Asia it has been in North America since the 1800s, probably brought over for its many medicinal purposes, including warding off witchcraft. Necklaces were woven from the branches and worn for protection from the “evil eye”. *

The first part of its binomial actually refers to this attribute, stemming from the Latin root word for solace. The second, describes the taste of the fruit which, while favored by birds, is mildly poisonous to humans.

*Now that I know this maybe I’ll bring some home. I’m not necessarily superstitious but with the way this year is going, it couldn’t hurt. At the very least, it might be pretty.

Searching for Shark Teeth

Took advantage of a lovely afternoon to zip down to Manasota Key near Venice, Florida. While my beach is wonderful, the sand down along this stretch of coast is famous for offering up fossilized shark teeth.

Venice is known as “The Shark Tooth Capital of the World” thanks to the erosion of the Peace River Formation. These loosely consolidated limestones and gravel beds formed 20 to 2.5 million years ago and are loaded with marine fossils. Since a single shark can produce over 25,000 teeth in its lifetime it is no surprise that there’s an abundance of these in the fossil record.

I was a woman on a mission; in all my beachcombing outings along the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Gulf I had never found a shark tooth. I was determined to end that unfortunate streak today. Spoiler alert: mission accomplished!

The beach was relatively empty but I encountered one nice lady who gladly showed me her treasures and offered some helpful tips. I have pretty good eyesight so I was prepared once I understood the key identifiers.

While some folks dig and sift, I opted to amble along the swash line looking for dark-colored objects (ranging from red to black) that were triangular-shaped and shiny.

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No Sifting Needed

After a few hours, I had a pocketful of permineralized dentitia and a some other fossils that are fragments of either whale or fish bones.

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Fossilized Shark Teeth

I didn’t stumble upon any real trophy pieces, most were badly eroded, but one still had serrated edges which is cool. What a wonderful way to spend a day!

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Fossilized Shark Tooth Showing Serrations